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Traveling Companion

What do you get when you cross an MP3 player with the latest best-seller?

The sun is up. The sky is blue. You’re stuck in traffic. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a commute or a road trip, the nice weather turns every minute behind the wheel into a torture. At times like this, you realize the benefits of books on tape. A calm voice reading something interesting can keep you sane on commutes and road trips alike.

But after borrowing a few books on tape or CD from your local library, you realize their limitations. You usually can’t find any of the titles you’ve heard about, and you’re not sure what else you might like. The prospect of taking a boring recording on a five-hour trip is almost worse than the complaints from the back seat.

It’s at times like this that you appreciate a convenient and sensible delivery system for recorded literature: Audible.com. I was first acquainted with the name when sundry NPR programs took to saying that their shows were available on Audible. When I got a subscription to the Audible content, my automotive listening experience changed radically for the better.

Audible.com is a two-tiered subscription site with thousands of hours of books in all kinds of categories, and NPR radio broadcasts and newspapers and magazines to boot. For $14.95 per month, you can download one audio book and one subscription-based recording (such as the New York Times daily or NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me”). For $19.95 per month, you get two audio books, and if you want more, you pay a discounted cover price for them.

You can search based on category and title, create wish lists, read reviews and feedback from Audible subscribers, and generally get a good idea of what you’re letting yourself in for. You can also preview a title, so see if a reader’s lisp or tone of voice is going to irritate you beyond measure.

Once you’ve bought your book or books, you can either listen to them on your PC or transfer them to one of several portable devices. Pocket PCs, MuVo, iPod, and others are high on the list, and you can install plug-ins to the Audible player for each of them. You can also burn them to CD-R, which is the low-maintenance approach I started with.

An Audible book on CD-R is a strange thing. The recordings themselves are just dandy, but in the process of chopping up one large recording into multiple CDs does have its quirks. In a sample five-hour recording of Bill Bryson reading his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” it broke the single .AA Audible file into five CDs’ worth of narrative, each with 11 tracks.

At the end of each CD, the audio fades out over five seconds or so, which is your cue to scramble for the next CD. When you insert the next CD, it fades in about 15 seconds back in the narrative, recapping the bit before your attention was distracted by scrambling for the next CD. This is a great feature, and one that I now miss on regular books on tape.

So far so good, but there are some less pleasant quirks. The CD recording process is interminably slow, for one thing. It took a couple of hours to get the almost six hours of the selected works of Edgar Allen Poe, narrated by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone.

Also, the distribution of tracks bears no resemblance to the chapter structure of the book. In more than one example, a track would break in the middle of a sentence, so if you zone out and miss a bit, hitting your CD player’s Back button won’t always help.

These CD quirks and my own failure to organize CD-Rs in my car led me to using my Pocket PC and Creative Nomad MuVo to transport my Audible books. But neither of these alternatives is particularly suited for use in cars (unless you’re a kid in the back seat trying to avoid asking whether you’re there yet).

Fortunately, I scoped out a solution to that problem in Virtual Reality Sound Labs’ VRFM7 , which is sold at WalMart’s automotive department among other outlets with the rather unappealing but descriptive label VR3 MP3 FM Modulator.

This handy little $30 adapter plugs into the cigarette lighter and broadcasts a radio signal on one of seven preselected FM channels. It can read MP3 files from a USB flash memory, and features easy pushbutton controls for playing, skipping back and forward, and bumping up the volume on MP3 files played through your USB drive.

This feature, however, doesn’t help a bit with Audible content, which is in a proprietary audio format that isn’t compatible with the player. (In fact, this player won’t play WMA files at all, and only plays MP3 variants like MPGA if you rename the file extension to MP3.)

No, to play Audible content with the VRFM7, you need to use an analog audio cable plugged into a Walkman- or iPod-style player’s headphone jack. There’s another jack in the side of the VRFM7 that takes this audio input and broadcasts it to the car stereo.

Sure, there are other products that do this, but they tend to suck down the juice on AAA batteries and give out during a trip. And of course, they don’t play MP3 files on USB memory either. And if it turns out that you’ve downloaded a book that gets on your nerves after a while, it helps to have some favorite tunes as a backup. Because in the summertime, that commute just gets longer and longer.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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